Agriculture in Britain Pt. 3 – 1939 – Present

We hope you’re enjoying our series on the history of British Agriculture, and what it is that’s enabled our country to go from small farmsteads eking out as much food as possible, to using land for artistry such as that provided by Earthcare: a company that creates beautiful garden design in Wallington (sponsored ad).

British Agriculture 1939-1945

Before the beginning of the Second World War, Britain imported nearly 55 million tons of food per year. This was due to the lower prices for imported food than domestic product outlined in our previous blog post on this subject. However, with the onset of the Second World War, Britain distributed much of its funds to the military campaign overseas. This meant that Britain could no longer afford to import as much.

Britain had also learned its lesson during the First World War that adopting a policy of “business as usual” while the country was at war, weakened it in the long run, with services then having to catch up with the shortfall of resources. At the onset of the Second World War, Britain almost immediately controlled Petrol and moved quickly to do the same with Bacon, Butter and Sugar, and quickly following onto all-out rationing in 1940.

As so many men were drafted to fight in the army, farmlands were devastated by lack of labour, and the government encouraged families across the country to grow food in their own gardens. At the same time, the Women’s Land Army was created in order to first take up volunteers, then draft women that were able, to labour on the farmlands, mostly producing livestock and dairy.

This isn’t to take away from the fact that this same situation occured worldwide as so many men from across the world were fighting in the war. Parliament estimated in 1945 that meat consumption would be greater than supply by around 1.8 million tons, while wheat was widely oversupplied, as well as carrots.

With the end of the war in 1945, the food situation improved in Britain dramatically, however, domestic supply would never be the same as pre-war again due to the over-supply and under-cutting from across the world.

British Agriculture 1945 – Present Day

After the Second World War, Parliament introduced the Agriculture Act 1947. This act was created in order to lower the amount of food imported into Great Britain and give a boost to the domestic agricultural industry. Thus creating a positive Balance of Payments. The act provided farmers with an assured price for their goods, and a guaranteed market. This created security for the farmers that enabled them to take risks and expand their business faster than they would otherwise be able to do so. The act was a great success. Where the agricultural industry was valued at £2.5 Million in 1939, in 1951 it was worth £100 Million, with half that being exported. The act also supplied government with the added benefit of making agriculture subject to and a system of economic planning.

Parliament continued to make amendments to this act throughout the coming decades in 1949, 1954, 1963, 1968, 1972 and 1976. The greatest reach of which was the final one, which enabled tenants to inherit their parents farmland if they had the relevant skills necessary.

Of course with Britain joining the European Economic Community in 1973, this would also have effects on British Agriculture, as food could be imported very cheaply from mainland Europe, and the value of the Green Pound also affected farmlands’ security across the country. The Green Pound was Britain’s version of the EEC’s agricultural conversion rates. These rates would attempt to keep the price of goods at a generally steady and even rate across the EU, so that an individual country’s economy devaluing or revaluing would not destabilize the food market across the continent.

Coming to the present day, Agriculture now amounts to the use of 69% of land in the UK, while employing 1.5% of its workforce, which is 476,000 people. At the same time, the UK is so heavily populated that over 40% of food eaten in the UK is imported from other countries due to the shortfall in domestic supply. The average age of farm holders in Britain is now 59, due to many obstacles that discourage younger generations entering the farming workforce. It exports £14 Billion of agricultural product, while importing £32.5 billion. The majority of these are with Western members of Europe.

While Agriculture is no longer one of Britain’s largest industries, it is now culturally important due to most of society’s view of farmers as holders of British traditions and values. Britain’s economy has largely evolved to the point that it no longer is a production driver, but a skills and knowledge provider. What this means for the future for agriculture in britain isn’t bright, however, there is the opportunity for farmers and the government to make use of all this rural land for diversification, for example as Solar Power farms, creators of Biofuel and other resources that will be needed as society switches away from fossil fuels more and more.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this series about the history of agriculture in Britain, and will use this as a jumping point to learn more about the industry in its current state and what you can do to support your local farmers and the industry at large.

Previous posts in this series:

Agriculture in Britain Pt. 1 – 1500-1750

Agriculture in Britain Pt. 2 – 1750-1939